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NFC East Spin cycle: Three-team race in NFC East

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Posted Dec. 17, 2012 @ 11:13 a.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

What a race we have. The Cowboys and Redskins both won in Week 15, the Giants lost big on the road, and with two weeks to play we have three 8-6 teams atop the division. (Pity the poor Eagles, who likely watched the madness from home on Sunday after their blowout loss on Thursday.) The madness is just beginning.

COWBOYS

What we learned: We were wrong to think the Cowboys were dead a few weeks ago when the Redskins dropped them to 5-6 on Thanksgiving Day. Three consecutive wins, including Week 15’s dramatic overtime victory over the Steelers at home, have the Cowboys in a three-way tie atop the NFC East with the Redskins and Giants. Technically, by tiebreaking procedures, the Cowboys are in second behind the Redskins, but Dallas holds its own fate. Tony Romo became the first QB in 21 games against the Steelers to throw for more than 300 yards. The Cowboys’ special teams was solid down the stretch, and a tired defense found a second wind. CB Brandon Carr’s overtime interception set up the game-winning field goal in the 27-24 thriller.

What’s in store next: The Cowboys can win the division with two victories, starting with next Sunday’s home game against the Saints. Drew Brees showed last week that the Saints, despite being out of the playoff hunt, are not giving up. He shredded the Buccaneers’ defense and is capable of doing the same to the Cowboys. Dallas really can’t afford to lose any remaining games with so many other teams in the playoff mix in the NFC.

What the heck? It appeared that head coach Jason Garrett temporarily lost his mind when he sent PK Dan Bailey (whose career long was a 51-yard field goal) out for a 61-yard attempt with 32 seconds remaining. The Cowboys had just been stopped on third down and appeared to be destined for overtime. Garrett had made the correct call not going for it on fourth and very short just after the two-minute warning, but he considered the long attempt before special-teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis apparently talked him out of it. Garrett wisely punted and buried the Steelers too far in their own end, leading to overtime. But it appeared that Garrett was a yard or two from attempting it — and potentially saved Garrett from more postgame criticism.

GIANTS

What we learned: It’s Week 15 and we still have no real idea which Giants team will come to play each week. As a result, the division lead is gone. The Giants went from first place to third, by tiebreakers, after losing 34-0 at Atlanta and watching the Redskins and Cowboys win. Now we know why Tom Coughlin thought the Giants would need to win its final four games to keep the NFC East crown. But Sunday, the Giants had very little pass rush, couldn’t cover Julio Jones and were a combined 4-of-13 on third and fourth downs in an embarrassingly bad loss, even to a team as accomplished as the Falcons.

What’s in store next: The Giants will attempt to pick themselves up in a road game against the Ravens, who clinched a playoff spot in Week 15. They’ll still play hard because the AFC North remains up for grabs and plus, well, they are just not playing that well. It will be the second time this season that an NFL team (the Bengals are the other) has faced Peyton Manning and the Broncos and Eli Manning and the Giants in back-to-back games. The Giants followed up a loss to the Steelers with a loss to the Bengals on the road, so the Ravens cannot be taken lightly.

What the heck? Fifty-two points scored one week, zero the next. How exactly does that happen? Well, it actually happened on defense, believe it or not. The Falcons picked on rookie CB Jayron Hosley in his first start and put the Giants in a 17-0 hole less than 20 minutes into the game. That put the Giants in a pass-first mode and took David Wilson (eight first-half rushes for 46 yards) out of the mix after a promising start. He finished with only 12 carries and one catch. Manning was picked off twice — both times throwing to Hakeem Nicks — and new RB Kregg Lumpkin lost a fumble. Defensively, the Giants never could get that cauterizing turnover or tide-shifting play. So, you can’t blame the fact that the Giants were blanked solely on the offense. The defense didn’t help either.

EAGLES

What we learned: Turnovers are bad. They often will kill a team. Case in point: When Nick Foles was picked off with 5:58 left in the third quarter, the Eagles led the Bengals 13-10. Two more turnovers and less than seven game minutes later, the Bengals were up 34-13. That would be the final score and the Eagles’ 10th loss of the season, the first double-digit loss season for the Eagles and Andy Reid since 2005.

What’s in store next: We could be entering the final two games of the Reid Era in Philadelphia, and both are huge games … for the opponents. The Eagles will face the Redskins in Philly in Week 11 and the Giants on the road in Week 17. The Redskins thumped the Eagles, 31-6, in Foles’ first start a week after he had replaced an injured Michael Vick. It didn’t go well — Foles was intercepted twice, fumbled three times and got sacked four times in the blowout loss. But he has improved markedly since then.

What the heck? Foles might have been credited with a fumble on Thursday against the Bengals, but the naked eye told a different story. RB Bryce Brown, who has been starting for concussed RB LeSean McCoy, short-armed a handoff, anticipating getting hit from a defender, and allowed the ball to hit the ground. It was run back for a tide-shifting touchdown. Brown has sort of been the anti-Foles, with two huge performances in his first two starts followed by a crash down to Earth lately. He has been credited with three lost fumbles in his four starts, plus the botched exchange from Foles. Brown will have to learn ball security in the offseason.

REDSKINS

What we learned: The Redskins made the right call, drafting a rookie QB to back another rookie. Robert Griffin III was drafted second overall, but that didn’t stop the team from taking Kirk Cousins in Round Four, which was followed by strange amounts of criticism for the team “wasting” a pick despite having other more pressing needs. We’ve moved past that. Cousins began slowly in his first start, replacing an injured Griffin, but finished very strong in a 38-21 victory over the Browns. It was the Redskins’ fifth consecutive victory, which moved them into first place along with the Giants and Cowboys. Right now, the tiebreakers favor the Redskins in terms of the playoffs.

What’s in store next: Two more NFC East games will determine if the Redskins can win the division. They control their fate, and two victories will get it done. They dominated the Eagles back in Week 11, but that was with Griffin, who had a near perfect game: 14-of-15 passing (with a drop) for 200 yards and four TDs, plus 84 rushing yards. Can he get back on the field after suffering an LCL sprain late in the Week 14 game against the Ravens? Once more, we’ll be glued to Twitter for daily updates about his practice habits and the thickness of his knee brace.

What the heck? Did Griffin missing the game actually help the Redskins? Consider: There was a feeling that maybe the Redskins were a bit of a one-man show, that Griffin not only excelled with his talent but also hid some of the team’s other deficiencies. So, winning with Cousins, who rallied nicely from an early interception, was a key step. It raised the level of the defense, which played well early but finished with its trademark second-half flourish. Scoring 38 points with a backup quarterback on the road always will raise a team’s confidence. So, when Griffin returns, it should remain very high.

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